Sunday, January 1, 2017

Lynne Werner has helped pilot Central Nebraska Regional Airport's growth

Lynne Werner, 2016 Woman of the Year, stands outside the new Central Nebraska Regional Airport terminal. 

The successes of the Central Nebraska Regional Airport the past seven or eight years have not been achieved without taking risks.

When airport officials added service to Phoenix-Mesa in 2009, airport officials worried it would have a negative effect on the twice-weekly flights to Las Vegas.

Instead of choosing American Eagle service to Dallas-Fort Worth in 2011, officials could have approved regular flights to Chicago. Those decisions, along with others, have turned out exceptionally well.

Largely because of the airport’s triumphs, Lynne Werner is The Independent’s Woman of the Year for 2016. The Grand Island resident chairs the Hall County Airport Authority, of which she has been a member since 2005.

Werner, a lawyer, has been director of trust services at First National Bank since 2008. Prior to joining First National, she was senior trust officer at Wells Fargo for 10 years.

An Ogallala native, Werner has lived in Grand Island for 21 years. She has been a pilot since 1991.

A sky high reputation

Why has the Grand Island airport been named Nebraska’s Airport of the Year six times since 2006?

“I think we really have a great team, and that comes from the board members,” she said. It also “comes from our director, Mike Olson, giving us good guidance.” She credits the “unbelievably small staff of people that work for the airport.”

But the airport’s growth also resulted from going out on a limb, Werner said.

“We had to make some decisions and take some chances on different routes, different airlines and different destinations,” she said.

Every time airport executives faced those decisions, it was a risk, she said. “And I just think that we happened to somehow make good choices.”

Adding service to Arizona, for instance, has not been a detriment to the Las Vegas flights, which began in late 2008.

“In fact, if you can believe it, our Phoenix-Mesa flights are more full than the Las Vegas flights right now,” Werner said. The Arizona flights have greater patronage by a couple of percentage points.

Some Nebraskans have vacation homes in Arizona, she noted. Some former Nebraskans live in Arizona and return to see their relatives.

Upward and onward

Happy developments continue at the airport. On Dec. 19, Olson announced that a 74-seat jet will travel the route to Dallas-Forth Worth, upgrading from a 50-seat aircraft. For the first time, passengers will be able to travel first class on regularly scheduled air service out of Grand Island. The 74-seat CRJ-900 will include nine first-class seats.

Beginning on Feb. 22, Allegiant will also add a third flight to Phoenix-Mesa.

Business has increased at the airport eight years in a row. The number of boardings in 2016 was 8.5 percent more than 2015. By the end of 2016, the total was expected to reach almost 70,000, compared to 64,643 in 2015.

Even though Allegiant has discontinued flights to Orlando-Sanford, “we really don’t think we’re going to see a dip in 2017,” Werner said.

Asked about her own strengths, she mentioned enthusiasm and her tendency to look ahead.

“I think I have maybe a big vision,” Werner said.

A major Grand Island accomplishment was the 2016 completion of the new $14 million airport terminal.

“It’s a pleasure working with Lynne,” said Olson, who has been working with her for 11 years. “The one thing that really stands out about Lynne is she understands and embraces community pride. When we were talking about what the new terminal should look like and what it should have in it, she wanted to make sure that we had something that symbolizes Grand Island.”

Werner has offered strong support to the airport’s expansion projects, he said. That shows “she understands the need for growth, and the growth is reflective of what’s going on in Grand Island.”

“As the board chair, she’s my boss. I think we both understand each other,” Olson said. Werner “has respect for me, and I have great respect for her, and I think that’s why we get along so great.”

From nursing to a law degree

From 1987 to 1989, when she was working as a nurse in Omaha, the former Lynne Lawson had few thoughts about aviation. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in nursing, she worked for a year as a pediatric nurse at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Werner considered either getting a master’s degree in nursing or a law degree. Inspired by a college professor who was both a nurse and a lawyer, Werner headed off to the Creighton University College of Law.

She didn’t think about aviation until she married Dr. Tom Werner, a family practice physician. A Grand Island native, he got his pilot’s license when he was in high school.

Werner has grown to share her husband’s passion for flight.

“I just love aviation,” she said. She loves the skies and looking down at the terrain below. She also likes the way air travel helps the family get places quickly.

Their 24-year-old son, Adam, got his pilot’s license this past fall. Their 21-year-old daughter, Jane, plans to become a pilot in 2017. The family owns its own plane, a Cirrus SR-22.

‘An incredible board member’

In addition to the airport authority, Werner serves on the boards of the Central Community College Foundation, the Stuhr Foundation and the Grand Island Community Foundation.

Previously, she was on the Grand Island Public Schools Foundation board for two terms. She’s a former trustee of the St. Francis Foundation and was a Grand Island Public Schools board member.

Werner is an “incredible board member,” said Traci Skalberg, Grand Island Public Schools Foundation executive director. If you want “a strategic thinker, you want Lynne in the room, because she just can drill down and get to what’s important.”

Werner knows what’s going to work “and can challenge you to think bigger,” Skalberg said.

Since she has “been on the airport board,” Skalberg said of Werner, “they have really brought in a lot of air service, as well as that beautiful facility. That’s her signature.”

Skalberg and John Hoggatt, First National Bank’s Grand Island market president, were both happy to hear Werner is The Independent’s Woman of the Year.

“On behalf of First National Bank, we couldn’t be more proud of Lynne Werner and what she does for our community and our clients,” Hoggatt said. “We’re personally and professionally proud of her.”

Big improvements, more to come

When Werner joined the five-person airport board in 2005, the airport was not successful. The only air service headed west, and more people flew out of Kearney than Grand Island.

Allegiant service to Las Vegas began near the end of 2008. Exceeding 10,000 boardings was a major accomplishment in 2009. Airports at that level receive $1 million in federal money annually, she said.

Werner, 52, wants the airport to attract customers from not just the Tri-Cities but the Sandhills, North Platte and elsewhere.

“We’re dead center in the middle of Nebraska,” she said. She’d like to see South Dakotans and folks from northern Kansas make the trip to Grand Island. Air fare to Dallas is right in line with flying out of Lincoln or Omaha and sometimes better, she said.

Down the road, airport officials will have to face the issue of charging for parking.

In building the terminal, Grand Island was able to obtain $9.8 million in federal money. But the concrete parking lots surrounding the terminal also must be paid for, and the federal government “does not cost-share on concrete,” she said.

The airport also must pay to have the old terminal demolished.

The flights to Orlando-Sanford might conceivably return someday, Werner said. When service began, airport officials thought it would only be seasonal. The flights lasted 13 months, “which is probably 10 months longer than we thought we would have it,” she said.

Allegiant officials have said, “we’re not closing the door on you completely,” Werner said. The airline felt the service “should maybe take a furlough for a while.”

Whatever happens, she hopes many people will think about flying out of Grand Island first.

As Werner pointed out in her re-election brochure in 2014, “The airport runway is the most important main street in any town.”


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